Every summer for the past 50 years, people have gathered to worship Sundays on the banks of Lake Mitchell.
Back in the summer of ‘69, “River Church” started as a way to draw boaters and lake-goers to worship. The Rev. Johnnie Trobaugh got the idea after asking young people why they were missing church.
“It was all begun because Pastor Johnnie used to ask some of the young folks why they wouldn’t come to church in the summer, and they would say that they were on the river,” said Wes Kelley, co-pastor of Clanton First United Methodist Church. “He lived on the river as well and said, ‘All right, we are going to start having a service on my boathouse.’”
Kelley and his wife, Meghan, serve as co-pastors of Clanton FUMC, which organizes River Church as a community outreach each summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
From the roof of his boathouse, Trobaugh would share the good news. About 80 boats docked for the first service, complete with an old pump organ but no hymnals because everyone knew the songs.
“He was very consistent with it. He ran the service every summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” said Meghan Kelley. “That consistency made it a special tradition for the community that lives on Lake Mitchell.”
The service takes place at 8:30 in the relative coolness of the morning. A typical Sunday can see dozens of worshippers and the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day holidays draw hundreds from across central Alabama.
“It’s a place where you can come in your flip-flops, or you can pull up with your boat. It reaches people who might not dress up and come to a traditional church service,” Wes Kelley said.
Each service includes music – “Shall We Gather at the River” is sung every Sunday without fail – and a sermon from a Clanton FUMC pastor.
Over the years, generations of families have come to the river for spiritual nourishment – literally baptized in the water of Lake Mitchell.
“It’s unique, but it’s more than just a novelty. River Church is a very spiritual experience for the people who come,” Meghan Kelley said. “It’s a time to reconnect with folks from around Clanton and Chilton County. It brings together family and friends around God and this beautiful part of creation.”
Though Trobaugh died in 2005, the service has continued. The Kelleys say that’s a testament to the volunteers who remain dedicated to Trobaugh’s ministry.
“Pastor Johnnie passed away, but in his memory, a pavilion was constructed at Higgins Ferry Park at the boat landing. That’s still where the River Church meets to this day,” Wes Kelley said. “Even though Clanton FUMC runs the service, it’s the volunteers and church members who make it happen.”
Since 1969, the service has never been canceled and goes on, rain or shine, every Sunday.
“We are very proud that we’ve never been rained out. We’ve been rained on but not rained out,” Meghan Kelley said. “They will not cancel for any reason.”